How It Feels To Play… At All 34


What It’s Like to Play is a column that describes how videogames are played, to an audience that doesn’t necessarily play a lot of such games. It is inspired by the series of the same name that ran on CultureRamp in late 2012, and its basic premise is explained by L. Rhodes here. The name is used with permission.

As an adult, how does one learn to play elec­tron­ic games? With no older sib­ling or friend down the block to teach, no com­mu­ni­ty of mates to check in with, no mem­o­ry of games from child­hood, how does one begin, how does one pro­gress? The uni­ver­sal advice is, “Just play.” Or “Find a game you love and play till you’re adept.” A wel­com­ing thought — how­ev­er, for me, it’s not been that easy, and I think the rea­sons might be inter­est­ing.

In my late fifties, my per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life both con­front­ed me with how very much I didn’t know about elec­tron­ic games, aes­thet­i­cal­ly and oth­er­wise. So I set out to explore, and set the arbi­trary goal of get­ting to know fifty games (and a wide range of them). I am still at the begin­ning: in three months that began with casu­al and occa­sion­al play, I’ve intro­duced myself to some twenty-nine games, so far fin­ish­ing or get­ting seri­ous­ly into about ten.

I can hurry past two ini­tial demands on a new play­er: my new boyfriend, an expert and thought­ful games­man (yes, he’s younger than me), has spared me ini­tial expense by shar­ing his Steam account and hook­ing me up with Blizzard, loan­ing me a track­ball mouse, and doing basic rec­om­men­da­tions and coach­ing. As for the sec­ond task, find­ing peo­ple to play with — no such luck. None of my friends play, and the dread­ed Beginner Shame blocks me for now from play­ing with either my few advanced game-player acquain­tances or with online strangers. “Games,” for me, for now, more or less means solo-player PC games.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

So far, every­thing I know I owe to alter­na­tive games — inde­pen­dent, eccen­tric, arty, small, non-competitive, lower-stress games: Monument Valley, with the charm of its unflap­pable heroine’s tiny, method­i­cal steps as she traipses through gravity-defying Escher struc­tures; the restrained, meta-gaming wit of Cameron Kunzelman’s Catachresis and Epanelepsis; the sim­ple but snide world of Loved; Two Queers in Love at the End of the World. Of course, for a book­ish chap like me, inter­ac­tive fic­tion has been the most involv­ing form, so thanks go to Kentucky Route Zero, Gone Home, and The Walking Dead. And — make no mis­take — this is an awe-inspiring way to enter gam­ing. But my project requires me to go fur­ther — across a great divide, main­stream games are star­ing at me, expec­tant­ly.

So now let’s talk about my one and only, tiny, area of exper­tise, my spe­cial POV: learn­ing to play elec­tron­ic games with­out the ben­e­fit of any prior expe­ri­ence. So far, two major obser­va­tions: first, as nat­u­ral as game-playing comes to feel for the vet­er­an play­er, none of this is sim­ply “nat­u­ral” — or, at least, human nature, what­ev­er that may be, has to adjust to these amuse­ments: there is more habit­u­a­tion and shap­ing of desire here, more re-arranging of affect and excite­ment and, indeed, of val­ues, by the very act of play­ing, than any­one accus­tomed to video games may real­ize. And, sec­ond­ly, play­ing a game is a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence if you’re inex­pe­ri­enced. And thus, when you’re just start­ing out, there are real, and reveal­ing, hur­dles to “just play­ing,” to shar­ing what a more know­ing play­er feels.

The first hur­dle, and it’s huge, is unfa­mil­iar­i­ty with game­play itself — and with the very process of learn­ing a game.

Start with the con­trols. For me, not being good with con­trols almost derails the whole exper­i­ment. It means lots of not suc­ceed­ing; more, it means hes­i­tat­ing at the thresh­old of the deep­er, more involv­ing expe­ri­ence of the game. This is true even with appar­ent­ly sim­ple games: I would have more fully enjoyed Gone Home — its story, its mood and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and sweet queer love story — if it hadn’t been the first time I ever moved a character’s POV with WASD keys and a mouse. I also had things to learn about the puz­zle logic of tra­di­tion­al adven­ture games. Struggling with these, I was too pre­oc­cu­pied by the game­play to get involved in the game.

More com­pli­cat­ed games, like MOBAs, expo­nen­tial­ly increase the obsta­cle, adding time-urgency in bat­tle and the demands of mul­ti­ple focus­es of atten­tion in a screen flood­ing with visu­al infor­ma­tion; for the first while, naïve play­ers like me will play with­out much con­trol or even much sense of what’s going on. It leaves me pre­oc­cu­pied by my own incom­pe­tence.

Plus I find that I — more a deduc­tive than an induc­tive thinker — do not eas­i­ly learn from the trial-and-error method of just jump­ing into a game to see how I do. Once lost, I might stay lost. “Just try it, you’ll fig­ure it out” must work bet­ter for other peo­ple.

The sec­ond hur­dle is the chal­lenge of, yes, get­ting involved in the game, but only in the right way. The fact is that one who enters the world of game­play is asked to mas­ter a strange dance of simul­ta­ne­ous attach­ment and detach­ment: stay unmoved if you are lost, if you fail repeat­ed­ly, even if you fic­tion­al­ly die in the attempt — but, con­trar­i­ly, if you level up, sur­vive, or win, cel­e­brate! I’m told to be emo­tion­al­ly open to the music, art and ani­ma­tion, to the sus­pense, the whim­si­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties of char­ac­ter cre­ation, the fan­ta­sy, the story — to just get into the game — but in that very state of open­ness and sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty, I’m some­how not to be dis­mayed by the gloomy, even dystopi­an, sit­u­a­tions of so many games, the vio­lence, the insis­tence that I kill strangers, or even the fun­da­men­tal help­less­ness of trial and error (and error, and error), as these, after all, are just the givens of play and not to be felt or thought much about. To expe­ri­enced play­ers, to prob­lema­tize this is pre­pos­ter­ous: “What’s wrong?” they ask. “You can’t enjoy the game if you keep get­ting upset about the wrong things or don’t enjoy the right ones!” Just so. But know­ing the dif­fer­ence is not auto­mat­ic — it has to be learned.

The third, and, to me, the most res­o­nant, chal­lenge is the fact that, for a new play­er, each game stands by itself. Michael Lutz wrote acute­ly in First Person Scholar  (empha­sis added):

I would con­tend that in the con­text of videogames, each per­for­mance is dou­bly haunt­ed: first by our mem­o­ries of other games and expec­ta­tions of new ones, and then by our expe­ri­ences of play­ing the game itself.

If that’s so, then some part of the fun an expe­ri­enced play­er enjoys is not inher­ent to any par­tic­u­lar game: the exhil­a­ra­tion my boyfriend feels as he plays is not inspired only by the game at hand, or even because he knows it as one of a type or sequence of games, but, because he already loves games, always-already val­i­dat­ing each par­tic­u­lar one with­in a larg­er, famil­iar delight. Lacking that con­text, a new game for me can be a shal­low­er expe­ri­ence, even a strange shot in the dark that I’m not sure I’m get­ting the point of. A good rela­tion­ship with any game can depend on know­ing things beyond it.

So, hope­ful­ly, with more play-time logged in, more get­ting the whole process under my skin, and (fin­gers crossed) some more suc­cess, my ease, my con­fi­dence, and, thus, my engage­ment and delight will increase. But John Vinson, in an Examiner​.com arti­cle, “How to Play First-Person Shooters”, gives the hard word:

The world of video games requires a lot of expe­ri­ence … FPS games in par­tic­u­lar have a nuance which requires tons of prac­tice in order to even be decent at them. …  No one said it was going to be easy. … When you first pick up a game, whether it’s FPS or not, you’re going to be pret­ty awful at it. Don’t get dis­cour­aged. No one truly becomes ade­quate at play­ing a game until they can put the time in nec­es­sary. It’s eas­ier said than done when you keep dying on the same stage over and over again. … The key is to sim­ply look at it as an obsta­cle which needs to be con­quered.

For a new play­er, the obsta­cle that needs to be con­quered is being a new play­er. As such, and for all these rea­sons, I — fierce­ly deter­mined to get some­where in this explo­ration — am not yet get­ting to the fun, at least not the fun an expe­ri­enced play­er knows. Curiosity (and some­times teeth-grinding stub­born­ness) has to moti­vate me instead. And that works.

Kentucky Route Zero Act III

Kentucky Route Zero Act III

There are cer­tain­ly pos­i­tive moments, gifts along the way — the dive bar’s ceil­ing mys­te­ri­ous­ly open­ing up to the sky dur­ing the torch song in Kentucky Route Zero, a moment of vic­to­ry when, after eight rapid deaths in The Walking Dead I fig­ure out how to sur­vive a par­tic­u­lar­ly tena­cious zom­bie by sneak­ing away behind a mov­ing car, a short sequence of chal­lenges in Portal 2 that proves sur­pris­ing­ly doable. I’m get­ting a lit­tle more patient, a lit­tle more accli­mat­ed — maybe even a lit­tle more amused. I’ve grown accus­tomed to giv­ing games some time, and rec­og­niz­ing that the star­tup peri­od of learn­ing a game is never going to be the part I per­son­al­ly enjoy. And late­ly I’ve seen that the days when I am most bit­ter­ly frus­trat­ed, “hate-playing” and com­plain­ing to any poor soul who will lis­ten — those days are usu­al­ly fol­lowed by next-day break­throughs.

A few morn­ings ago I find myself play­ing through the tuto­ri­al of Diablo III with my boyfriend, who offers tact­ful coach­ing and expla­na­tion (N.B.: the most impor­tant words you can say to a new play­er? “You don’t have to under­stand that part yet.” Instant relief.) As a team game, it’s a big change for me. And, to my sur­prise, I like it; for three hours of medioc­re play­ing (my longest play ses­sion at a sin­gle game so far), I like it well enough — sim­ple game­play, a hope of sur­vival, a break from puzzle-solving, pleas­ing visu­als, a chang­ing land­scape, anoth­er play­er in the room … My son texts me, “I’d com­ment that it’s odd that such a smart guy likes such a dumb game, but I like Diablo a lot, too.”

I write as an out­sider, but one inter­est­ed in and sym­pa­thet­ic to games. What, then, might this out­sider account offer to insid­ers?

First, an appeal: I real­ly think this could be eas­ier. Can’t some­one cre­ate a grad­u­at­ed list of games for adult-onset play­ers, a series of games to take on, in sequence, that would build famil­iar­i­ty and com­po­nent skills and even atti­tudes, in a con­scious way? Most play­ers I know have only the blur­ri­est mem­o­ries of how one learns this stuff, lit­tle sense of the parts that make up the whole: sort­ing it out might be an inter­est­ing project.

Second, a reflec­tion. I’d haz­ard a sur­mise for invet­er­ate play­ers: if play­ing these games feels nat­u­ral, it’s an acquired nature — because habit­u­a­tion to play actu­al­ly changes you. In par­tic­u­lar, you become desen­si­tized to some ele­ments of the game fic­tions and high­ly sen­si­tive to oth­ers, includ­ing the rewards and ener­get­ic stim­u­la­tions of play. You become crafty at the kinds of prob­lems games put for­ward; it comes to affect your rhythms, your imag­i­na­tion, your way of pro­cess­ing things. (Don’t get me start­ed on what it’s like to drive in traf­fic with a com­mit­ted MOBA play­er!)

Most impor­tant­ly, in a larg­er sense, I believe that games alter your sense of fun, includ­ing, cen­tral­ly, the very value you place on fun, the amount of time, money, effort you are will­ing to invest in its pur­suit. In short, alien vis­i­tor that I am, I have to accept that for you this fun is authen­tic and valu­able. In fact — here’s my pro­fes­so­ri­al train­ing — I believe that the value you place on fun actu­al­ly con­sti­tutes an on-the-ground riposte to a lot of critical/cultural pes­simism (I refer espe­cial­ly to mid-twentieth-century Marxists, like Lyotard and Baudrillard, both very influ­en­tial on me, who saw all pop-culture habit­u­a­tions through nar­rowed, sus­pi­cious eyes). A thought­ful, crit­i­cal reeval­u­a­tion of play, of fun, could upset a lot of ortho­dox­ies. That’s part of the promise of games.

  • Lasse Andersen

    I’m a pret­ty expe­ri­enced games-player, and i must say i real­ly enjoyed this. Partly because of the per­spec­tive being brought to light. Not many peo­ple who decide to get into games at a later age decide to also describe the expe­ri­ence. The other part is the opti­misim and open-eyed atti­tude you come into it with. Were it to me, this arti­cle would be rec­om­mend­ed read­ing for any up-and-coming game design­er, because there are some real nuggets in here. Kudos!

    • Michael Evenden

      Thank you! Hopefully I’ll have more to say on this at a future date–maybe a tale of glo­ri­ous suc­cess­es, who knows? I appre­ci­ate your respon­se.

      • Michael Evenden

        Look for an expand­ed ver­sion of this arti­cle, com­ing soon to my Tumblr blog, Stranger Here Myself.

    • Tobias Dänzer

      I also enjoyed this arti­cle. Thanks for tak­ing the time to write it!

  • Disqus_eh_um_saco

    Okay here’s what I think is a good, and acces­si­ble, list of games to play for a new comer. It should teach the play­er what to expect of games and their idio­syn­crasies. Video games can be incred­i­bly quirky and expe­ri­enced play­ers some­times don’t real­ize it. Small things that are taken for grant­ed, like how red bar­rels are explo­sives and doors open both ways. 

    It requires a mobile and a PC, but also bet­ter with a PS3. A lot of games can be emu­lat­ed so you wouldn’t need older, hard­er to find con­soles. Every game in the list is cho­sen for what it can teach and/or for being real­ly great.

    Start out with Tetris, to under­stand the very con­cept of a video game, get good at using a con­troller and teach the joy of learn­ing the game.

    Move on to Crayon Physics, to become famil­iar with physics and puz­zles in video games

    Super Mario Bros., it’s cre­at­ed the basic lan­guage of plat­form­ers and video games in gen­er­al. It’s the first game in the list with a nar­ra­tive, in terms of both story and game­play. It has ene­mies, ugprades, its own crazy logic. This is impor­tant to learn, each game has its own insane inter­nal logic.

    Limbo would be a nice com­ple­ment after SMB, also to intro­duce the play­er to physics, but it can be skipped. It’s a nice game though, to show what to expect of games the­mat­i­cal­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly if played after SMB. To show how the same con­cept can be worked in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ways.

    Now it’s time to move on to 3D games, start­ing with Journey. Gives you a sense of how to con­trol a char­ac­ter in a 3D envi­ron­ment, manip­u­late the cam­era, and shows you that games aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly about the chal­lenge, but also about the world and the explo­ration.

    Katamari Damacy, you were intro­duced to 3D envi­ron­ments, now a game with a lot of physics in a 3D envi­ron­ment, that demands speed, agili­ty and con­cen­tra­tion, but at the same time has incred­i­bly intu­itive con­trols.

    Gone Home, to get used to first per­son con­trols in a safe envi­ron­ment, get used to a game where puz­zles and nar­ra­tive mend togeth­er and you’re expect­ed to keep track of simul­ta­ne­ous nar­ra­tives at the same time in order to advance.

    Portal, the game that should put to prac­tice absolute­ly every­thing that the pre­vi­ous games have taught. It’s the grad­u­a­tion game.

    I think this should build a solid basis for most games, though the play­er would still be unpre­pared for RPGs and strat­e­gy games as well as com­pet­i­tive games, fight­ing games, rac­ing games. I guess maybe The Sims could enter the list at some point.Or SimCity. But yeah, I think a nice way to get start­ed.

    • Michael Evenden

      A cal­cu­lat­ed cur­ricu­lum, com­plete with some famil­iar titles. I appre­ci­ate this very much. Hopefully, I’ll find anoth­er chance to report in on what I dis­cov­er. Thank you.

  • marith­ness

    Interesting exper­i­ment! I’ve been an avid video-game-player for years, but never thought about ven­tur­ing so far out­side my com­fort zone as to seri­ous­ly try to enjoy the *whole* spec­trum of play types and gen­res. If a type of game (FPS, I’m look­ing at you here) frus­trates me enough that I want to throw the hard­ware out the win­dow with­in fif­teen min­utes, I sim­ply con­clude that it isn’t for me. But there you are game­ly try­ing to mas­ter the for­eign lan­guages of con­trols, per­spec­tive, move­ment, tropes and more. This site is going to be fun to read. 

    …You’re like­ly up to your ears already in game rec­om­men­da­tions, but I can’t resist sug­gest­ing a few more that might be new ter­ri­to­ry and that I think you’d enjoy inter­act­ing with: 

    - Visual nov­els, par­tic­u­lar­ly the unusu­al Analogue: A Hate Story

    - Persona 4 and Persona 3 Portable, for the (afaik) unique ‘Social Link’ mechan­ic, and the time man­age­ment

    - Okami, of course. Combat cal­lig­ra­phy!

    - Text-based inter­ac­tive fic­tion: Anchorhead and Slouching Towards Bedlam might be right up your alley as a book­ish chap. 

    - City-builder sim­u­la­tions: I’m enjoy­ing the heck out of Banished, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the free Colonial Charter mod.

    • Michael Evenden

      I appre­ci­ate all rec­om­men­da­tions! What’s fun about the recent ones is that there’s no over­lap. Games are an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly rich field. Thanks so much. (And, cer­tain­ly, I am not always con­vinced that my approach of hang­ing ion on games I’m ill-suited to is the best strat­e­gy.) Look for a longer ver­sion of this arti­cle on my Tublr blog, Stranger Here Myself.

  • Colter

    This was a won­der­ful read, very much lets me in on the strug­gle that’s so off-putting to my par­ents which seemed so unques­tioned and nat­u­ral to myself. I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed by your men­tion of how games alter our val­u­a­tion of fun. Having grown up with video games, I’ve always viewed fun as my reward for work, so it is heav­i­ly val­ued in its many forms. The idea that it’s not so impor­tant is actu­al­ly a bit curi­ous to me, once sta­bil­i­ty and pro­gress are han­dled in ones’ life I’d expect fun to be the next pri­or­i­ty? I’d be quite inter­est­ed to read your take on the value of fun as you see it, or your “crit­i­cal reeval­u­a­tion of play.”
    Thanks for your time!

    • Michael Evenden

      Thanks for this respon­se. I could be wrong, of course, but I actu­al­ly think this is generational–hence my argu­ment that the dif­fer­ence may be electronic-game-created; my par­ents never played games aside from a half-reluctant bi-monthly round of bridge with friends (there’s an ath­let­ic side to this story, too, but an unhap­py one), and–largely for par­tic­u­lar fam­i­ly reasons–formal game­play has been rare in my life, too–and in fact I believe that few of my age­mates, in and out of my fam­i­ly, play games of any kind. Perhaps your fam­i­ly and friends’ expe­ri­ences are dif­fer­ent? I will cer­tain­ly be writ­ing more on this. Thanks for your reflec­tion. By the way, I will be post­ing an expand­ed ver­sion of this arti­cle on my Tumblr blog, Stranger Here Myself.

      • Licoriceallsorts

        My fam­i­ly were always fanat­i­cal card and board game play­ers; back in the early days of home com­put­ers, I played bridge for my col­lege. We liked noth­ing bet­ter than a nice long afternoon’s game of Risk. This love of games and sci­ence fic­tion prob­a­bly pre­dis­posed me to lik­ing video games when I final­ly made their acquain­tance prop­er­ly.

        • Michael Evenden

          This is where the lim­its of writ­ing from a per­son­al per­spec­tive come in; I cer­tain­ly see your point–you had a nat­u­ral path into elec­tron­ic games. As for me, what can I say? Different story. Without those habits to fall back on, I’m learn­ing from square one. (The ques­tion is, are there games that fos­ter the habits of play­ing games, or do they all just pre­sume them?)

  • Drakesden

    Thanks for this very inter­est­ing per­spec­tive. One thought: per­haps a lot of the cul­ture of many major games (espe­cial­ly first-person shoot­ers) can be traced right back to the vocab­u­lary of action movies. In par­tic­u­lar, the idea of “killing strangers” as a noble or nec­es­sary task of the hero is in almost any action fran­chise you can name — Bond, Bourne, Indiana Jones, Star Wars … And cer­tain­ly that cel­e­bra­tion of a man who can slaugh­ter count­less peo­ple (and hap­pens to be on our side) has been an enter­tain­ment sta­ple of ancient Greece (Homer) and old England (Beowulf). Someone who’s already a fan of action movies might be able to shift into an FPS less squea­mish­ly than some­one who doesn’t go out of their way for a Michael Bay film.

    • Michael Evenden

      You’re exact­ly right, of course–and, sadly, action films are not my metier. (My son, a pro­fes­sion­al stunt­man and fight chore­o­g­ra­pher, knows it, to his cha­grin and mine.) I’m a holdover from the anti­war days of long ago, and a peacenik down to my toes; so I have not just an unfa­mil­iar­i­ty but even an instinc­tive antipa­thy to this very impor­tant source of game ideas. Interestingly, a num­ber of peo­ple tell me that they sim­ply never think about it when they play.

  • disqus_qWQWNKBJ5r

    You may have had the Marxists — we had Kojima, Carmack, Newell and Sakaguchi — and that Miyamoto fel­low. Thanks for the read.

    • Michael Evenden

      Ah, but did they per­suade you?? (Chuckle.) Thanks for your respon­se.

      • disqus_qWQWNKBJ5r

        Several months late, but yes! And mil­lions more exact­ly like myself! They were/are vision­ar­ies in every sense of the word.

  • a game sug­ges­tion, if i may: given that you’re book­ish, you might enjoy the dig [by lucasarts] and also loom by them, too. those are both pret­ty slow-paced games [there’s no frantic-ness in either game. just you ver­sus that par­tic­u­lar world.]

    you might get a lot out of — in par­tic­u­lar — the dig, given it’s themes and you might like the musi­cal back­drop of loom.

    one piece of advice, though: these are adven­ture games and, as such, some­times, the logic can be a lit­tle obtuse — i would cer­tain­ly take a pen and paper [for loom — you’re going to want to write drafts down when you find them] and a walk­through for both, in case you get stuck.

    but i think both are absolute­ly worth your time.

    • Michael Evenden

      I real­ly appre­ci­ate the rec­om­men­da­tions. Thank you. Hopefully I’ll have more good things to report in time.

  • Jon Borknøyfjord

    This was a great read.

    I don’t agree with hav­ing to emo­tion­al­ly engage in a game in “the right way” though. As a sea­soned gamer I still play FPS games on “Easy” sim­ply because I don’t enjoy dying repeat­ed­ly. And while I can get used to it, I don’t real­ly enjoy killing strangers for no rea­son. One of the crit­i­cisms lever­aged again­st Tomb Raider in episode five of Fail Forward got was pre­cise­ly about that: The glee­ful mass mur­der­er the game makes of you real­ly grates again­st the nar­ra­tive por­tray­al of the play­er char­ac­ter as con­sci­en­tious.

    But every­body has dif­fer­ent reac­tions to the ele­ments of a game. For exam­ple, while you may become frus­trat­ed at get­ting lost in games, I rel­ish it. It often takes only one thing to ruin your fun or break your immer­sion, and that’s also why you’ll so often see polar­ized opin­ions on games. Learning how you can make games more enjoy­able for your­self is indeed wis­dom one must accrue.

    • Michael Evenden

      I appre­ci­ate this very much. Finding my own way to my own ver­sion of enjoy­ment through even main­stream games is, indeed, the ques­tion. By the way, if you’re inter­est­ed, I’ll soon be post­ing an expand­ed ver­sion of this arti­cle on my Tiumblr blog, Stranger Here Myself.

  • Crenando

    Emily Short is one of the most inter­est­ing peo­ple in ‘inter­ac­tive fic­tion’, Counterfeit Monkey is a mas­ter­piece.

    • Michael Evenden

      Thanks so much for the rec­om­men­da­tion.

  • Daniel Weber

    *Unless spec­i­fied, any game men­tioned below is avail­able on PC, and almost all through Steam.*

    If I had to rec­om­mend one game to some­one in your shoes, it’d be Kerbal Space Program. While it has time-sensitive moments, it doesn’t demand reflex­es. Rather, it rewards exper­i­men­ta­tion, fore­thought, and cre­ativ­i­ty, and acci­den­tal­ly teach­es some real-life knowl­edge along the way. Whether you go into it treat­ing the bits it gives you like rock­et fuel-filled legos, or attempt to metic­u­lous­ly fol­low the path of real life space pro­grams, there is some­thing for you. The sense of accom­plish­ment when one docks for the first time is a very joy­ful feel­ing. And then, the mods… Well, if we get into them, there won’t be any space left for other games!

    Have you tried strat­e­gy games? They are pri­mar­i­ly divid­ed into two cat­e­gories, real-time and turn-based. Both almost always have a cam­paign that some­times dou­bles as a tuto­ri­al (intro­duc­ing the game sys­tems in small, mea­sured doses to help peo­ple learn) and are most­ly built with single-player in mind. Turn-based are almost always either grand strat­e­gy, like Civilization (or Beyond Earth, though I’d rec­om­mend Civilization more to a begin­ner), or tac­ti­cal, like XCOM or Valkyria Chronicles (XCOM is the more pol­ished, VC has the cuter art style and more per­son­able story.) Real time are most­ly scaled to sin­gle bat­tles, and run the gamut from Starcraft (Popular for a good rea­son, but requires micro­manag­ment) to the spir­i­tu­al prog­eny of Total Annihilation: Supreme Commander (Modern, excel­lent­ly exe­cut­ed take on the sub­gen­re. Look for Forged Alliance.), Ashes of the Singularity (Brand new exam­ple show­ing off new graph­ics tech, appar­ent­ly less good in other areas.), and Spring (FOSS clone of the orig­i­nal), to more simulator-y series like Wargame (Steep learn­ing curve for RTS vet­er­ans, but prob­a­bly not much worse for you. I like a lot of its sys­tems, but am unde­cid­ed on the whole.) to more niche games like Warzone 2100 (Now FOSS, I’d rec­om­mend try­ing.) or Homeworld (Movement is 3d. Recently remas­tered.)

    Portal and Portal 2 are (as far as I’m aware) the best intro­duc­tion to first-person / WASD-controlled gam­ing. No time pres­sure (except for snarky com­ments, but those just add to the story!), but, control-wise, exact­ly the same as things rang­ing from Mass Effect (a series wide­ly praised for its story and one I very much rec­om­mend.) to Borderlands (A very funny series, also rec­om­mend­ed.) to Call of Duty / Battlefield (Two series duel­ing for the largest mar­ket share amongst FPS play­ers, best known for their spec­ta­cle.) to Arma / DayZ (An exact­ing sim­u­la­tor with extreme­ly pre­cise stance con­trol. DayZ uses that for a grand melee with zom­bies. If you’re going for breadth, def­i­nite­ly check out Arma, or at least its com­mu­ni­ty.) to Quake (Here every­one goes ZOOM! I’d rec­om­mend check­ing out the sim­i­lar game Sauerbraten, which is FOSS.) to TES/Fallout (Serious time sinks, but well worth it if you can invest it.) to Saints Row (Very silly series that does not take itself seri­ous­ly. I’d rec­om­mend check­ing out 3 first.) to Titanfall (Very well done mashup of a few dif­fer­ent gen­res, has giant stompy robots.)

    • Michael Evenden

      What a gen­er­ous respon­se! That’s a whole curriculum–lots for me to try. (In par­tial answer to one of your ques­tions, strat­e­gy games seem to involve a mind­set that isn’t first- or second-nature to me. Still, I must keep at it, and you’ve given me many options.) Thanks so much! Hopefully I’ll be able to make anoth­er report in time. Look for an expand­ed ver­sion of this arti­cle com­ing soon to my Tumblr blog, Stranger Here Myself.

  • Ronfar

    May I sug­gest any entry in the Kirby series? They’re a more gen­tle intro­duc­tion to plat­form games than the Super Mario games, which tend to get unfor­giv­ing in later lev­els.

    • Michael Evenden

      Thank you! (Super Mario undoes me even at the eas­ier levels–as I men­tioned, one of the most neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences I had in this whole exper­i­ment was try­ing to play Mario Kart with no prepa­ra­tion at all; the mer­ci­less speed and my lack of con­trol savvy made for an instant anx­i­ety attack. Paper Mario was kinder.) I think I’ve fooled around with Kirby a bit. I’ll try more at your rec­om­men­da­tion. Thanks!

      • Ronfar

        Ugh, Mario Kart… Those games get dev­il­ish­ly hard in a hurry. Battle mode with friends can be a blast though.

  • William Winsor Reeves

    I’m a bud­ding game design­er, and I’ve been con­tem­plat­ing exact­ly the space this arti­cle cov­ers. I both have inter­est in mak­ing the projects I’m work­ing on more acces­si­ble; and as a writer, find myself con­tem­plat­ing my rela­tion­ship to the emo­tion­al real­i­ties of game­play, and very much look­ing for ways to shift play­er focus and types of atten­tion.
    This is a great overview of your expe­ri­ence, and it’s already help­ful in how I’m think­ing about this. Heck, at the very least, it’s ammu­ni­tion for my wild claims about how alien the gam­ing expe­ri­ence real­ly is to those not accli­mat­ed!
    Thanks for shar­ing, and I look for­ward tor read­ing more.
    Speaking of–this may be tum­blr inex­pe­ri­ence, but I’m not able to find you under Stranger Here Myself. Tumblr seems to have a lot of strangers. Can you provide a direct link so I can check this out as it expands?

    • Michael Evenden

      The Tumblr inex­per­tise is mine, I assure you. Let me pur­sue what­ev­er mis­takes I’ve made and I’ll alert you/link you when they’re fixed. Thanks very much for your inter­est. The tough­est thing about this whole jour­ney is com­bat­ing the expec­ta­tion that elec­tron­ic games are nat­u­ral­ly and inher­ent­ly fun, rather than a learned plea­sure (that few know how to teach). Thanks for mak­ing some wild claims on the behalf of us out­siders.

  • Licoriceallsorts

    Despite play­ing Pong aged 17, when my dad brought it home and announced that this was the future of enter­tain­ment, and despite play­ing Space Invaders at uni­ver­si­ty, I only real­ly got into gam­ing when I became a moth­er of two sons. Our very first game, when my eldest was five, was called Spooky Castle, and it took us a year to fig­ure it out. I enjoyed play­ing Mario Kart and other plat­former games with my boys. However, I’d say I only became a gamer when I dis­cov­ered Final Fantasy VII, after watch­ing Advent Children with my sons, as a result of which I devel­oped a great love of pret­ty much all Square Enix games, espe­cial­ly the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. Learning to play was dif­fi­cult; it took me an entire sum­mer to com­plete Crisis Core on my PSP (that hand­held device is a truly ele­gant piece design) because I didn’t just have to learn the rules for this par­tic­u­lar game, and I didn’t just have to learn the con­trols for my PSP — I had to learn the basic fun­da­men­tals under­pin­ning all RPGs. It’s like learn­ing a new lan­guage. Learning a new lan­guage is much eas­ier if you already know what nouns, tens­es, gerunds, prepo­si­tions, sub­jects and pred­i­cates are. 

    I’ve become involved in some fan­dom com­mu­ni­ties online, where every­one has been very wel­com­ing, even though I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I’m old enough to be their moth­er. As a teacher, I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of using games as teach­ing tools (although I have yet to come across a real­ly good teach­ing game for sec­ondary school stu­dents). I’m cur­rent­ly inves­ti­gat­ing the poten­tial of para­dox games as a teach­ing tool.

    • Michael Evenden

      I appre­ci­ate this account–especially from a fel­low teacher–and the anal­o­gy to learn­ing a lan­guage has long struck me; at this point I have a very thick accent. My stu­dents have con­tribut­ed to my dis­cov­er­ies, and have been so awed at the idea of teach­ing their teacher, or sim­ply shar­ing with their teacher, some­thing they love so much and see as so far removed from our usual edu­ca­tion­al conversation–like a lot of the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty, they have been gen­eros­i­ty itself. Thanks for your story!

      • Licoriceallsorts

        That’s very true, and has also been my expe­ri­ence. The boys in par­tic­u­lar love the fact that I can talk to them about some­thing thing they love, and that I value it myself. Probably the effect would be the same if I could talk to them about hock­ey, but sports gen­er­al­ly tend to be val­ued by adults, while video games are den­i­grat­ed.

        I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised if it turns out that video games are good for staving off Alzheimers.

  • Alexander Freyr

    Something I have always envied less expe­ri­enced gamers for is their lack of knowl­edge of the overused video game blue­print, some­thing sim­i­lar to movies where you’ve watched so many of them you’ll always know where the story is going, I’m like this but with video games. 

    One of my most favorite games OF ALL TIME is Journey, a game so out of touch with its fel­low video games that I actu­al­ly felt like I was in a real adventure/journey. I wasn’t so famil­iar with what I was doing and how I was con­trol­ling the game that I actu­al­ly felt small, lost and unim­por­tant in the world the game put me in. 

    I play so many games that I long for basi­cal­ly ANYTHING that hasn’t been done before, I’ll name some weird small stuff now that no games do but I wish they would just to mix things up a bit: 

    Zoom in: I want games to actu­al­ly focus more on the detail and the char­ac­ter by zoom­ing in on them to make it feel more like a movie. Sometimes I feel like they could just swap their char­ac­ters for a sin­gle dot on the screen; 

    Lessen the player’s impor­tance: You don’t always have to be the pro­tag­o­nist you know, this is what I freak­ing adore about Journey *SPOILER ALERT*, you aren’t spe­cial, you might think that as you’re this small unim­por­tant thing that con­quers things that no other has… but the thing is, that’s not true, as a mat­ter of fact every­one has and every­thing can! It’s not about the fact that you’re doing some­thing remark­able, it’s about the jour­ney.

    Another thing I love is that I can’t real­ly spoil jour­ney for you as its lit­er­al name explains it to you “it’s not about the story, it’s about the jour­ney”.

    This is what almost all games have become. You’re like this pres­i­dent who has no idea what the hell he’s doing hav­ing peo­ple spoon feed you whilst wait­ing on your next com­mand.